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Forest mage, p.75
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       Forest Mage, p.75

         Part #2 of The Soldier Son Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  And the waiting dragged on, day after day, with no one seeing fit to inform me of anything. The guard who fed me and checked on me refused to exchange a single word with me. I lost track of the days. Sometimes I dozed and thought only a few moments had passed, only to hear the rattle of an insipid meal being pushed through my doors. At other times, I could find neither sleep nor true wakefulness, but lay on my cot suspended, feeling as if all time had stopped.

  The waiting came to an abrupt end when I jerked out of such a reverie to find Spink once more peering through the barred window.

  “I thought I told you go to away,” I greeted him, even as I could not deny the relief I felt to see a friendly face.

  “Well, you’ve been outranked. I’m here under orders. ”

  “From Epiny?” I jested, and he almost smiled.

  “If her commands could have gotten me through the doors to you again, I’d have been here a hundred times. No. From Major Helford. His search for anyone willing to act as your defense finally discovered me. And here I am. ”

  “But…” Dismay filled me. “You’re in supply. How on earth could they select you to act as my counsel? Do you know anything about military law?”

  “They did not select me so much as work their way down to me. I’m afraid everyone above me who was asked begged off. Man after man said that he could not defend you impartially. As depleted as the ranks of our officers are, you should probably be grateful that you don’t have Ebrooks or Kesey in this role. ”

  “How do you know Kesey and Ebrooks?”

  “I was given this task yesterday. I immediately rode out to the cemetery to interview them. ”

  I’d sat up too suddenly. I closed my eyes to let the dizziness pass, then opened them and asked, “And what did they tell you about me?”

  “That they had liked you. Not at first, but when they saw you doing your best at a task no one else wanted, and living out there despite the forest so close by, they came to admire your ‘guts,’ as they so elegantly put it. They said it was hard to believe you had done such a thing. ”

  His tone told me everything. “But not impossible. They do believe it. ”

  He folded his lips tightly and then gave a curt nod. “The evidence is against you. Every man who has held the post of cemetery guard before you has come to a bad end. Desertion or suicide. One man simply drank himself to death. They found him neatly laid out in the grave he’d dug for himself. Kesey and Ebrooks both think you went mad. ”

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  “How do they explain the injury to my head?”

  “Self-inflicted. ”

  “They think I hit myself in the head with a bucket?” I was incredulous.

  “It’s the only possible explanation, Nevare. And therefore, as unlikely as it is, they have to believe it. ”

  I turned away from him. My hands went to fists. Irrational tears stung my eyes. Foolish as it was, I’d expected them to believe me. I hadn’t thought their good opinions would count for much, but I’d believed there would be at least two speaking in my favor at my trial. To hear that even Kesey and Ebrooks could believe such evil of me destroyed all hope. “I’m going to plead guilty. ” I could scarcely believe I’d said the words, but the moment I had, I saw the wisdom in them.

  “What?” Spink was horrified.

  “I’m going to plead guilty and get it over with. I don’t want a drawn-out trial with spectators flocking to listen to people say vile things about me. I don’t want to stir things up until my execution becomes a social event. I just want to plead guilty and be done with it. ”

  “Nevare, you can’t! You didn’t do it, you didn’t do any of it!”

  “Can you be sure of that? How do you know I’m not mad, Spink?”

  “Because of your journal,” he said quietly. I thought he sounded embarrassed.

  “You read my journal?” I was outraged.

  “No. Not directly. Epiny read it. She found it soon after I hid it, though she didn’t tell me she’d found it until after she’d finished reading it. ”

  “Oh, by the good god. Is there no mercy left in the world?” For one horrifying instant, every demeaning thing I’d written about Epiny flashed through my mind, along with my accounts of my sexual encounters with Olikea and every other stupid thing I’d recorded in there. Why on earth had I written such things down? They didn’t belong in a soldier son’s journal! And now Epiny had read them all. And through her—“How much did she tell you?”

  “Enough,” Spink replied, his ears going pink.

  Silence reigned between us. To have the last two people in the world who thought well of me know exactly what sort of man I really was overwhelmed me in a tide of despair. Execution would be a mercy.

  “I’m going to plead guilty, Spink. If you have any regard left for me at all, burn that damned book and then forget you ever knew me. ” I felt a sharp pang of regret as I recalled the letters I’d sent to my sister. A heartfelt prayer went out of me that my father had been vigilant and had destroyed them unread. “Good-bye, Spink. If there’s anything left of mine in the cabin that has value, sell it off. And Clove. See he goes to a good master. Use the money however you think best. ”

  I heard Spink shift his feet on the floor outside my cell. After a moment he spoke almost calmly, the anger muted in his voice. “I thought you had more courage than that, Nevare. ”

  “You were mistaken, then,” I retorted.

  I heard the rustle of paper. “There are certain things you should know. The town of Gettys wanted to try you. Major Helford decided that the military has more right than they. But he conceded to them that when you stand before your seven judges, three of them would be from the town. Now, they haven’t given me much time to prepare. I have statements from Ebrooks and Kesey. Can you think of anyone else who might give a testimonial as to your character?”

  I didn’t reply. After a short time, he pushed on doggedly. “I have a list of questions here that I need you to answer. They’ll help me to defend you. ”

  I said nothing.

  He cleared his throat. “Under what circumstances did you first meet Fala, a prostitute working in Sarla Moggam’s brothel?” His voice was absolutely neutral.

  I refused to answer.

  After a moment, he asked, “On what date were you first betrothed to Carsina Grenalter, Nevare Burvelle?”

  I came to my feet faster than I thought I could possibly do it and flung myself at the door. I tried to thrust my hand through the bars to seize his damnable list of questions, but he simply stepped back out of my reach. I was dizzy with my sudden motion and with the fury he had awokened in me. I clung to the bars to keep from falling and growled through my teeth, “Don’t you dare reveal my real name at the trial! Don’t you dare connect me to Carsina!”

  “Nevare, it’s your only chance. Tell the whole truth. All of it. ”

  “I won’t. If you even try to bring it up, I’ll disrupt the whole proceeding. I’ll attack my guards and force them to kill me right there. ” It came to me that that was an excellent idea in any case; it would avoid all the ceremony and suspense of a hanging. I think Spink must have seen that in my eyes. He suddenly looked very tired and defeated.

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  “I know you think that your life is in shambles and not worth saving,” he said quietly. “But for a moment, I wish you’d stop being so selfish and look at what you are doing to Epiny and me. She loves you, Nevare. I can’t fail her and then spend the rest of my life with her. She has already said that if we have a boy, she’s going to name him Nevare. Does that mean nothing to you?”

  “It means that as usual, Epiny is acting without a grain of sense. You should stop her. You have a duty to protect your son from his mother’s foolishness. ”

  There was a long, cold silence. He spoke formally at last. “Well. I will tolerate many things from you, but not insult to my wife. You may do as you
please. I will put forth my best effort, and I will never have to apologize to my wife or anyone else for being derelict in my duties. Go to your death a coward if you must, Nevare. Good day. ”

  And with that, he left me.



  F or the rest of that morning, I laid on my pallet and wondered exactly what Spink would think he must do. It was good to know that he would stand by me as a friend, even when I chose to give up, but it was intolerable that he should defy me, for if he chose to betray my real name and then speak of my involvement with the Specks, he would ruin my family’s name. Even if he won clemency for me that way, I thought grimly, I would emerge from my cell into a life I preferred not to face.

  I reined my mind away from such thoughts and began to make my plans, feeble as they were. At the very first opportunity after I came into the courtroom, I would attack whoever was presiding. I’d have to make it a real effort, not just a dramatic show. I wanted to force them to kill me. I wondered if I’d be moved from my cell to the courtroom by armed guards. If so, a simple escape attempt might win me what I hoped for. Now that the magic had forsaken me, a bullet or two in the back should end it all. I shifted on my bunk, and the abused planks beneath me gave a final protesting crack before they collapsed onto the floor. I sighed, but did not bother getting up. After a time, I closed my eyes.

  Sleep opened under me like a trap door.

  I fell to my knees in the deep moss. Around me, the summer forest hummed with life. I blinked, for even the leaf-dappled sunlight was a shock to my eyes after the dimness of my cell. The rich, earthy smells of moss and earth filled my nostrils. A pale green butterfly came to dance around me, perplexed, and then suddenly lifted and wafted away on the foliage-filtered breeze. Slowly I stood and looked around me, then turned my feet to the path that led up the ridge to Tree Woman’s stump.

  I felt a difference in my presence in this place. I was not there under my own power but at her command. I was as footless as a ghost, as if I drifted over a path where before I would have felt the mossy earth beneath my feet. The cool breeze touched my face but did not move my hair or stir my clothing. When I came in sight of Tree Woman’s stump, I halted, perplexed.

  “And here he is,” I heard Tree Woman say. But not to me. Epiny stood there beside her, leaning on Tree Woman’s trunk, looking pale and sweaty and disturbingly real. She had been wearing a straw sun hat; she had pushed it off and it dangled down her back by the ribbon around her neck. Her hair had been pinned up as befitted a married woman, but it had come down messily in tendrils around her face. The dark blue dress she wore struck me as peculiarly shapeless and unflattering. Then I abruptly realized it had been cut to accommodate the growing child inside her.

  “You cannot be here,” I said to her. She peered at me, her eyes widening. “You can’t be here,” I said more loudly, and then she seemed to hear me.

  “I am here,” she asserted, an edge of anger in her voice. She squinted at me and then, with a small gasp, lifted her hand to her mouth. “You are the one who cannot be here. Nevare. You are rippling. ”

  “It is only by her pleading that you are here,” Tree Woman rebuked me as she wavered into view. She sat on top of her stump, looking older and wearier than I had ever seen her. She was thinner, I realized. Depleted of her fat. That was disturbing. “You see what you have reduced me to!” Tree Woman rebuked me. “This is your own fault, Soldier’s Boy, that I have so little strength to help you. ”

  “I don’t understand. ”

  “He never understands anything,” Tree Woman observed to Epiny in the voice of an older woman advising a much younger one.

  “I know,” Epiny replied. She sounded both exhausted and fearful. She was breathing heavily, and when she set her hand to the top of her belly, my heart tightened.

  “You shouldn’t be here. How did you get here?”

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  “I walked. ” She took a breath. “Uphill. And against the fear. ”

  “I am surprised she managed it,” Tree Woman observed. “She came into the forest calling for Olikea. She is fortunate that I answered instead of that one. She is still very angry with you, Soldier’s Boy. I can imagine too well how she would have vented that anger. ”

  “I don’t understand how any of this can be,” I repeated. “Isn’t this the other place? Aren’t I dreamwalking?”

  “Yes. You are. And you have dreamwalked to a real place, just as your cousin has hiked here. So. Here we all are. And she tells me she would do anything, give us anything, if the magic will help her find a way for you to live. ” Tree Woman cocked her head at me and her eyes went cold. “Perhaps I should ask for her firstborn child. ”

  “No!” I roared, but my roar had the strength of a cat’s hiss.

  Epiny had gone paler, but she said nothing. She looked at me and her eyes filled with tears. She bowed her head.

  “She is going back to her husband right now,” I announced.

  “Oh, is she?” Tree Woman laughed humorlessly. “Stop giving commands. You are powerless here. And you are powerless by your own choice. Again and again, you refused to serve the magic. Repeatedly, you refused to answer Olikea’s summons so that she could build you up with the correct foods. You have been like a small boy refusing to do his chores. With your willfulness you have tangled the magic until I begin to wonder if anyone can make it work again. But some tasks must be done, and if the proper person will not do them, another will be found. Your cousin has come here of her own will. I do not know why the magic did not choose someone like her to begin with. I think she will serve it far better than you have. ”

  “You can’t do this! You can’t take her instead of me!”

  “Do you think not? She has strength, and a natural affinity for this world. ” The woman on the stump looked down on Epiny, and her smiled narrowed. “I recall the first time that she and I fought over you. I was surprised at her strength then. And on the day you cut me, she came into my world and dared to challenge me for a life the magic had already claimed. She took him back with her, and a man who should have fed the magic has instead fathered her child. It would suit me very well, Soldier’s Boy, to see her bow her head to the magic. It would be fitting if she lost what I lost. ”

  I looked at Tree Woman. I still felt my love for her, but I also felt the gulf between us that she could even threaten Epiny so. “What can I do to persuade you to let her go free?” I asked bluntly. “I’ll give you anything to see her safely home. ”

  “That’s the wrong bargain,” Tree Woman replied. “She has already told me several things she is willing to do to win your life back for you. The only thing that is left for me to decide is if we have any use for you. ”

  “Let Epiny go. Help me to live and I will come to you and serve the magic. Even if it means going against my own people to do so. ”

  Tree Woman cocked her head. She was quiet for a time, but it was more as if she were listening than thinking. I stood beside Epiny and tried to take her hand. She watched owlishly as my phantom hand swept through hers. I put my arm around her. She gave me a pale, tired smile and then turned her worried glance back to Tree Woman. I looked past the meditating woman to the new tree sprouting from her prone trunk. Its leaves hung limp and motionless in the summer breeze.

  Lisana focused her gaze on us again. “The magic will take both of you,” she announced, obviously pleased.

  “That wasn’t offered!” I retorted angrily.

  “Of course it was,” she replied. “Epiny said she’d give anything to save you. You said you’d do anything to see her safely home. The magic agrees to both. ”

  “That isn’t fair!” I cried.

  “What would be fair, Soldier’s Boy? Shall we let her go, let you die, let the intruders cut down the ancestor trees? Let the road gash through the forest like your blade cut through my trunk? Cut the People loose from their roots as you severe
d me from mine? That would be fair?”

  “I’m sorry I did that,” I said again. I suddenly understood that Epiny’s venture into the forest had reawakened all of Tree Woman’s hurt and anger. Lisana and I had set our great battle behind us; we had even seen ourselves as victims of our own conflict. Epiny’s presence tipped the scales a different way. She was my ally who had aided me in Tree Woman’s defeat. Tree Woman felt afresh the ignominy of her defeat. Epiny was the living embodiment of my other life and my loyalty to it. She represented everything that kept me away from the magic. “Please, Lisana. Please let her go,” I said simply at last.

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  “You ask that as if you think it were in my power. She came here howling out Olikea’s name like a she-cat in heat. She is lucky that one did not come to her. Olikea and the others have fled into the mountains. They fear what is to come. When the magic is angered, all suffer. The People are converging on Kinrove’s folk now. They fear his magic has ceased to work. The Fear his dancers make no longer holds the intruders at bay; the ancestor trees have begun to fall again. Kinrove is the oldest and fattest of our Great Ones. They will petition him to stop the dancing, and begin a war such as your folk will understand. ”

  “There is no need for that!” Epiny broke in. She gave me a single sideways glance and then said, “I can do what you have asked of me. I can stop the men from cutting down your ancestor trees. And I will do it, if you find a way for Nevare to live. ”

  For a long time Tree Woman regarded Epiny silently. Then she said, “I told you. The magic has accepted. It is up to the magic now, not me. ”

  “But what are we supposed to do?” I asked.

  “Whatever the magic wants you to do,” Tree Woman replied.

  “Lisana,” I begged. “I have told you over and over again. I do not know what the magic wants of me. If I knew, I would have done it by now. ”

  “You are the only one who can possibly know. I suggest you listen more closely to it,” she replied stiffly. I suspected I had offended her by calling her by name in front of Epiny. She turned her back on both of us, and then, suddenly, she wasn’t there. In the instant she vanished, I suddenly felt frail, a shadow blowing in a black wind. Then Epiny looked at me and set her hand on top of mine, which rested on her shoulder. Her fingers went through my hand; she clasped her own shoulder but I felt more stable.

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